Uncontained turbulence: Shabu’s wise heart and old soul bleed on canvas

Shabu Mwangi's painting 'State of Waiting' at Circle Art Gallery on May 11, 2024.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

Shabu Mwangi is on a trajectory of enlightenment that is both rising and deepening every day. In this process, one of his central concerns is staying connected to his community and to humanity at large.

It's a concern made visible in his current exhibition at Circle Art Gallery. Entitled ‘Un)Contained Turbulence’, this his third solo show at Circle, reveals Shabu’s knack for the narrative as he reflects on a myriad of broad topics rarely explored by other East African artists. They include the consequences of globalisation, capitalism, and fear as they impact whole communities.

Fear, as he sees it, has a particularly profound role to play in generating the turbulence and greed leading to untold tragedies.

One of his works that reflects on the global political scene is entitled ‘Distortion in Global Politics’. There are others that further expose how closely the artist observes global dynamics and correlates them to circumstances closer home where he feels leaders need to be held accountable. It’s especially true when their constituents are crying for help, as in a work like ‘Crippling State’ in which a disabled man looks like a Nairobi cripple out in traffic begging for bread.

This is not the first time Shabu has addressed such issues. But this one directly relates to this moment when autocracies are on the rise with their hardline insensitivities as portrayed in a painting like ‘Agreeing Not to Agree”. Such bogus ‘agreements’ between insecure so-called leaders has also led to countless coups d’etats in Africa, which is another one of the 17 portraits painted in oils on canvas in this show. ‘Failed Coup II’ is all about the way one army general managed to arrest rebels and throw the one in the painting behind bars.

Shabu Mwangi’s ‘Chronicle of a Word’ at Circle Art Gallery on May 11, 2024.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

Shabu has such a sophisticated perspective on power relations that he can paint a work like ‘Coercive State’ showing why wananchi [citizens] need to escape such oppressive conditions.

As Shabu sees it, fear and greed are both underlying factors in the land-grabbing that was most apparent during colonial times, when land was swiped from local populations who were sucked into master-slave sorts of power-relations related to the material value of land. Yet in a piece like ‘We belong to the land’, Shabu seems to say that the land owns us. Neither we nor the land grabber can actually own her since Mother Earth will remain here long after all of us are gone.

Then there’s another disrupting turbulence that Shabu lays at the feet of insecure leaders who disregard their social commitments to gobble up all the resources, including the donor assistance meant to help the poor. But even the healthy are jobless because funds meant to generate work to employ them have been robbed. So many have lost hope and resort to booze, drugs, or suicide. What’s required, Shabu claims, is a ‘Present Assertion’ by the oppressed to defy the odds and become successfully self-employed. The trick, he implies, is for youth not to lose hope.

State of Waiting’ is an autobiographic work in which the two characters are himself and his mother. “She is the one who stood with me when everyone else treated me like a lost cause," says the co-founder of Wajuukuu Art Centre who just had a major exhibition in Germany and will soon be off to set up another show in Morocco. He was also scheduled for a London exhibition but had to be postponed for the current Circle Art one. Nonetheless, when the Circle show delayed, he had to send works meant for Circle to London straight away.

“That meant I had to work swiftly to produce this body of works,” he reveals. Yet there’s nothing slipshod in either his mode of painting or his message. It’s as if he needed that sense of urgency to allow the free flow of ideas to come forth as they have. His painterly strokes have also been expressive at an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

Ultimately, a painting like ‘Trust the Path’ pretty much summarises Shabu’s message to the youth, the disheartened, and to those in need of reassurance and comfort.

Some might say Shabu has a Christ-complex. But the reality is that he has seen the disconnect between the traditional bond of the wise grandparents and their children’s children. Now in his 40s, he seems to feel one way to assist his community is to share his personal experience and wisdom with youth who care to listen. He has an old soul and an abundance to share.

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